Thibaut Courtois believes he has little chance of winning the Ballon d'Or despite his incredible Champions League final performance for Real Madrid, noting the presence of team-mate Karim Benzema makes such an honour even more unlikely.

Courtois was in imperious form as Madrid claimed their 14th European Cup/Champions League triumph in Paris, making nine saves as Carlo Ancelotti's team beat Liverpool 1-0.

Liverpool managed 24 shots throughout the contest, the most a team has recorded without scoring in a Champions League final since Opta records began (in 2003-04).

Courtois' tally of saves, meanwhile, is the highest on record in a single Champions League final, with his 59 across Madrid's dramatic European campaign also a single-season record (both since 2003-04).

However, after being named man-of-the-match, Courtois cast doubt on his chances of winning the biggest individual prize in world football.

The 30-year-old said goalkeepers have little chance of being named the best player in the world, particularly given the form of Benzema, who scored 44 goals and added 15 assists in all competitions as Madrid were crowned champions of both Spain and Europe.

"It is impossible for a goalkeeper to win it, even more so if he plays in a team with Benzema," he told reporters, as quoted by Tuttomercato.

"I can go far, but it is difficult to win this trophy. 

"For me, what matters is the fact that when I returned to the locker room, all my team-mates were screaming my name. This is worth more than personal recognition."

Lev Yashin is the only goalkeeper to win the Ballon d'Or, doing so in 1963, while Bayern Munich's Manuel Neuer came third in 2014.

Courtois also topped the Champions League charts for save percentage (80.6, minimum five saves), and goals prevented according to expected goals on target data (4.7) this season, before capping his fine season in perfect fashion in Paris.

While Courtois was keen to emphasise the collective nature of Madrid's success, he believed his saves from Mane in the first half and Salah after the break were crucial.

"It is incredible for me to win the Champions League final like this. For me, it was not important to be a protagonist, it was important to win," he added

"I was ready, I made an important save at 0-0 and one at 1-0. The one on Salah with my hand was beautiful, but also the one with my foot.

"I'm here to help my teammates, to keep the clean sheet and win. I'm happy to have been MVP in the final."

Meanwhile, Courtois also wished Liverpool supporters well after kick-off was twice delayed amid reports of heavy-handed policing in Paris.

Writing on Twitter on Sunday, the former Chelsea man said: "I feel sorry for Liverpool fans and the way they were treated. I hope everyone got home safe!"

Karim Benzema proudly declared "we are the best again" after Real Madrid secured another Champions League title with a 1-0 win over Liverpool.

France international Benzema largely watched on as Liverpool bombarded Madrid's goal in the first half at the Stade de France on Saturday.

Jurgen Klopp's Reds attempted five shots on target in the opening 45 minutes, as many as Liverpool had mustered in their previous two Champions League finals combined (two in 2018 and three in 2019).

During that first-half rearguard display in Paris, Benzema saw a goal ruled out shortly before the interval after being adjudged to stray offside inside the area.

But Vinicius Junior delivered the decisive strike just before the hour, while Thibaut Courtois thwarted Liverpool as Madrid held on for a record-extending 14th European Cup, more than double any other side.

Benzema became just the second French captain to lift the trophy, after Didier Deschamps with Marseille in 1993, and the Madrid talisman was quick to salute his side.

"We are the best again. It has been a very difficult season for us, and we deserved it again," he told Movistar.

"The game was very difficult, but we showed everyone that we are alive, and we won. A final always involves hard work and tiredness...

"We scored an offside goal and got into the game in the second half to end up winning the final."

Benzema also expressed his delight at winning the Champions League in his home country as he eyes the Ballon d'Or before heading to the World Cup with France.

"It means a lot to me, it's very important. I'm very proud," he continued.

On the Ballon d'Or, the 34-year-old added: "Let's see if it happens. Hopefully. But the most important thing is to enjoy today's victory."

Carlo Ancelotti must have been considering it. He must have been thinking that this would not be Vinicius Junior's night.

The hour mark was approaching, the Brazilian boy wonder had barely made an impact on this Champions League final, and on the bench there was semi-final hero Rodrygo, straining for a chance.

Heck, there was Eden Hazard too, and even Isco and Gareth Bale. For old time's sake, did they ever cross Ancelotti's mind.

There had been a first-half flicker from the 21-year-old Vinicius, when he got the better of Liverpool's Ibrahima Konate with a stealthy piece of skill in the penalty area, but Jordan Henderson read the danger and gladly conceded a corner.

But that had really been the first and last time in the first 58 minutes of play that Vinicius caused Liverpool any real consternation. He had a team-low 29 touches of the ball at that point, but then Federico Valverde's low cross from the right presented him with a 30th, a tap-in at the far post. The phantom menace became the match-winner.

Trent Alexander-Arnold, needing to initially cover Karim Benzema, appeared to almost forget about Vinicius, but there he was, lurking, and he could not miss.

Billed as a Ballon d'Or shootout between Benzema and Liverpool's Mohamed Salah, this final largely ignored that script. If anybody put in a performance worth of such an honour here, it was Madrid's outstanding goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who made nine saves, the most on record in a Champions League final since 2003-04.

Watched by Ronaldo, the great Brazilian whose health scare before the 1998 World Cup final at this very stadium was followed by France romping to glory, Vinicius stayed on the pitch until stoppage time, when Ancelotti opted for Rodrygo's fresh legs.

Ancelotti, that is, who is now a four-time Champions League winner, the first coach in the history of the competition, in this or its previous guise as the European Cup, to reach that tally.

He has trusted Vinicius all season long, backed a blossoming talent and been richly rewarded by the youngster, and his winner in such a game of high prestige marks another step forward in a career that could see him finish among the all-time greats.

There were plenty of greats inside the Stade de France, many in the stands. Needless to say, the likes of Luis Figo, Ronaldo, Clarence Seedorf, Zinedine Zidane and Fabio Cannavaro did not have to tolerate any of the nonsense outside the stadium that forced this game to be delayed by 36 minutes, that left reports of children in tears, of pepper-spraying police, media being mistreated, and of panic on the streets of Paris.

The Galacticos were joined in the VIP seats by Rafael Nadal, midway through his crusade for a 14th French Open title.

Madrid now have 14 Champions League and European Cup titles, and Ancelotti, who delivered La Decima in 2014, has delivered two of those after the two he landed with his beloved Milan.

A double of LaLiga and the Champions League is theirs, while Liverpool must settle for their own twin triumphs from the FA Cup and EFL Cup. The quadruple was beyond them, and Liverpool blew themselves out in the first half here.

After knocking out Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea, Manchester City and now sinking Liverpool in the trophy match, Madrid reign once more.

Vinicius reigns – the first South American aged 21 or younger to have 10 or more goal involvements in a Champions League campaign since Lionel Messi for Barcelona in the 2008-09 season.

His four goals and six assists in Europe came from a personal all-competitions haul of 22 goals and 16 assists in 52 games for the season. At 21 years and 320 days, Vinícius is the fifth youngest player to score in a Champions League final.

Ancelotti reigns – "I am a record man," he told BT Sport at full-time.

Benzema reigns – it was not his night but could have been.

The Frenchman had a goal ruled out for offside just before half-time, after a three-and-a-half-minute wait for a VAR verdict. Deciphering that moment was as challenging as the task of unravelling the Agatha Christie footballers' wives court saga, and it caused almost as much soapbox frothing on social media.

Come the final whistle, and Madrid's celebrations of their 1-0 victory, that moment was an afterthought.

At full-time, former Liverpool and Madrid striker Michael Owen said of Jurgen Klopp's Reds: "I still think they're the team to beat... the most fearsome team in Europe".

Owen was in Paris, at pitchside even, but must have missed the news. Madrid reign again.

David Alaba has taken his place in Real Madrid's starting line-up for the first time in over a month for the Champions League final against Liverpool on Saturday.

Alaba had been out of action since being substituted at half-time during Madrid's 4-3 semi-final first-leg defeat to Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium, with Nacho starting instead when Carlo Ancelotti's men sealed a 6-5 aggregate victory with a stunning comeback at the Santiago Bernabeu earlier this month.

The Austria defender's selection in Paris was the only change to the Madrid side that started that second leg, with attacking duo Vinicius Junior and Karim Benzema again leading the line.

Those two have assisted one another a combined 18 times in all competitions this season, the most of any pairing in Europe's top five leagues.

Vinicius' inclusion made him just the fifth player to start a Champions League final for Madrid aged 21 or younger, after Raul (1998), Iker Casillas (2000), Nicolas Anelka (2000) and Raphael Varane (2014).

However, Benzema is at the opposite end of his career. He and Alaba were joined by Toni Kroos and Luka Modric to make Madrid the first team to start a final with four players who had previously made 100 or more Champions League appearances.

Benzema had been one of three centurions (also Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos) in Madrid's 2018 final win over Liverpool, in which Gareth Bale's brace as a substitute proved the difference in a 3-1 triumph.

Bale was named on the bench again for this rematch ahead of his imminent departure as a free agent, while fellow winger Eden Hazard was also among the substitutes.

Semi-final hero Rodrygo Goes, who grabbed an improbable stoppage-time double to wipe out City's lead over Los Blancos, hoped to make a similar impact after being named next to the big-money duo on the bench.

Madrid headed into the game aiming to win their 14th European Cup or Champions League title, with their 13 prior wins already a record. Ancelotti was bidding to become the first man to win four Champions Leagues.

Kylian Mbappe staying at Paris Saint-Germain can only be a positive outcome for French football, according to Les Bleus coach Didier Deschamps.

World Cup winner Mbappe appeared set to move to Real Madrid when his contract expired in June, but opted to sign a three-year extension with PSG.

That denied Madrid talisman Karim Benzema the chance to link-up at club level with international team-mate Mbappe, who insisted he stayed at PSG "because the project had changed" and for sentimental reasons.

Deschamps will have the attacking duo to call upon for the Nations League campaign, starting against Denmark next Friday, and the France coach was delighted to see Mbappe stay in Paris.

"It's his choice. It's obvious that he stays in Ligue 1, it's a very good thing for French football," he told reporters on Saturday.

"He is attached to the club, he said what he had to say but in being French, that can only be a good thing.

"We can grow by staying. Today the objective of PSG is the same as in all the big clubs, and to win the Champions League. It may be necessary one day to go abroad, but that is not an obligation.

"We are not going to speak in other periods when there was a lag compared to France. But today, the choice of players is not the same.

"It is perhaps less of an obligation to go abroad to accomplish beautiful things."

 

There were reports of tension between Benzema and Mbappe after the former uploaded a photo of late rapper Tupac Shakur that was deemed to be a veiled reference to betrayal.

Benzema has since denied those suggestions, insisting he does not feel betrayed by Mbappe, and Deschamps does not envisage problems between the pair when they arrive for international duty.

"From my position as coach, where I have the players live where I know from A to Z what is going on, the main thing is the group," he added.

"It can lead to misunderstandings. From a situation where we can all draw negative conclusions when they are not necessarily negative... It can turn into a misunderstanding, which does not reflect reality.

"Today with the connected world it can go very very quickly, the slightest photo goes quickly. Even if I'm not on there!"

Christopher Nkunku, Moussa Dembele and Wissam Ben Yedder will also join Mbappe and Benzema in France's attacking ranks, with Olivier Giroud missing out from selection.

Deschamps says he did not call up Giroud as he wanted to offer the likes of Nkunku, Dembele and Ben Yedder a chance to show their worth.

"I said that in relation to the attacking players, who will be supposed to have a little more playing time," Deschamps continued.

"Olivier Giroud is not with us, it's to give playing time to Moussa, Christopher and Wissam, who are with us regularly, who have had playing time and will have the opportunity to have a little more.

"If possible we will make sure to involve everyone, some will play more than others. Through the four meetings, we will make sure that they are active, so that they get stronger, to have more experience. It will give additional information on the final list for the World Cup."

France's sports minister Amelie Oudea-Castera believes Kylian Mbappe will be the poster boy for the Paris Olympic Games.

Mbappe last week decided to stay at Paris Saint-Germain, despite having widely been expected to join Real Madrid on a free transfer.

The 23-year-old has signed a three-year deal with PSG, keeping him at the Parc des Princes until 2025.

It is a move that Oudea-Castera believes benefits the whole of France, as she suggested Mbappe, already a World Cup winner, will now be the star for the country to get behind in the 2024 Olympics.

"To be on the field, in our magnificent sites, to represent his country at the Olympic Games in 2024, he has always dreamed of it and he will make so many of us dream of it," she told RMC Sport, as quoted by Le Parisien. 

"It's a big 'YES' in capital letters. PSG will be fully behind the Olympic and Paralympic Games. I am certain that all this will happen."

Oudea-Castera thinks Mbappe is worth the huge salary the Ligue 1 champions are paying him.

"The amounts are very high, but that rewards an immense talent, constant work. He is a huge worker, sport also has its big stars as has entrepreneurship," she added.

"It's not dirty or ugly, especially since he gives a lot. Kylian makes his values clear, he is very committed."

Oudea-Castera also had a word for Mbappe's France team-mate Karim Benzema, who she backed to win the Ballon d'Or after an extraordinary season with Madrid that might culminate in a Champions League triumph, with Los Blancos facing Liverpool in Paris on Saturday.

"He has a good chance [of winning the Ballon d'Or]," she said. 

"We are all behind him, it would be a very nice reward."

Karim Benzema is continuing to grow as a leader on and off the pitch after inspiring Real Madrid to the Champions League final, according to head coach Carlo Ancelotti.

The France international leads the scoring charts in this season's competition with 15 goals, which is just two behind Cristiano Ronaldo's all-time record in a single campaign.

That includes back-to-back hat-tricks in the knockout-stage wins over Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea, and three goals across both legs against Manchester City in the semis.

Benzema is enjoying his best campaign yet in front of goal and will look to round off 2021-22 in style when Madrid face Liverpool in Saturday's final at Stade de France in Paris.

Asked what improvements he has seen in Benzema this season, Ancelotti said: "He has more personality and leadership now on and off the pitch.

"What has not changed is his quality, which is still top, and also his humility."

At 34 years and 160 days, Benzema is out to become the second-oldest player to score in the Champions League final after Paolo Maldini (36y 333d) for Milan – also against Liverpool in 2005.

The 34-year-old has happy memories of playing against the Reds, having opened the scoring in Madrid's 3-1 victory when the sides met in the 2018 final in Kyiv.

Marcelo, who was also on the pitch that day and is seeking an incredible 25th trophy with Los Blancos this weekend, has also been impressed by Benzema's leadership qualities.

"He has shown that [leadership], though it's not just been this season," Marcelo said at Friday's pre-match news conference. 

"His character and presence has helped the team a lot. He doesn't even need to talk for that. He plays great football for us."

European club football's main event is almost here, with two bona fide giants of the game set to face off at the Stade de France on Saturday.

Either Real Madrid or Liverpool will be crowned champions of Europe in Paris; whichever team manages it will be providing their fans with a glorious end to a tremendous season.

Of course, Madrid did what Liverpool could not on the domestic front, as Los Blancos head into this game as LaLiga champions – the Reds ultimately missed out to Manchester City on the last day of the Premier League campaign.

But this has still been a successful season for Jurgen Klopp's side, who could yet claim a treble having already lifted the EFL Cup and FA Cup in England.

It promises to be an immense spectacle, with Opta's pre-match facts highlighting the wealth of footballing greatness that is set to be on display.

The history

Much of the build-up to this match has centred around two separate narratives of "revenge" relating to the 2018 Champions League final meeting between these two.

The first obvious desire for retribution comes simply from the fact Madrid won 3-1 in Kyiv – the other surrounds Mohamed Salah, whose match was ended early on that occasion after a collision with Sergio Ramos.

Either way, if Liverpool – and Salah – are to have their vengeance, they'll need to contend with Madrid's astonishing record: they have won each of their previous seven Champions League/European Cup finals.

To put that stat into context, no other team have even won the competition more than seven times, let alone won in seven consecutive final appearances.

But if you're looking for omens, answer this: who last beat Madrid in a European Cup/Champions League final, and where was it played?

Liverpool, in Paris (1981)…

The managers

For about 24 hours, Klopp had joined an exclusive list of managers who had reached the European Cup/Champions League final four times.

But then Carlo Ancelotti's Madrid pulled off their third great escape in as many knockout ties, meaning the Italian would set a new record for the most final appearances as a manager in UEFA's flagship competition.

But the historic achievement he'll no doubt be craving is still up for grabs.

Victory on Saturday will ensure Ancelotti is the first manager to lift the trophy four times, having won the competition in 2003, 2007 and 2014.

But here's another omen. The only club to beat an Ancelotti team in a Champions League final? That's right, Liverpool in 2005.

Nevertheless, Klopp doesn't have a particularly encouraging record against Los Blancos. He's faced them nine times in the Champions League, with his 33 per cent success rate the worst among teams he's faced at least three times.

The danger men

It would be fair to bill this match as something of a Ballon d'Or shootout.

Certainly, ahead of Saturday, the favourite is Karim Benzema, and with good reason. The France striker has enjoyed an incredible season and been central to Madrid's route to the final – he has scored 15 goals, two behind the all-time record for a single Champions League/European Cup campaign.

What helps make that such a remarkable achievement is the fact he would become the second-oldest scorer in a Champions League final (34 years, 160 days) after Paolo Maldini (36 years, 333 days) if he does net in Paris.

Madrid will likely need to keep the vengeful Salah in check, however.

Since the start of the 2017-18 season, the Egyptian has 44 Champions League goal involvements, a tally bettered only by Robert Lewandowski (55) and Kylian Mbappe (47).

If Liverpool are successful, Salah will surely become the frontrunner for the Ballon d'Or – unless Sadio Mane, who has scored three in his past four Champions League games and won the Africa Cup of Nations, has a decisive impact.

The prize

Liverpool are bidding to join Milan with seven European Cup/Champions League crowns, the second-most in the competitions' collective history.

Of course, the only team with more than seven are Madrid. Victory for them will take them to 14 titles, remarkably twice as many as any other club, a fact that really highlights their obsession with the competition.

Either way, a behemoth of European football will enjoy another memorable occasion in Paris on Saturday.

But if it's Liverpool who succeed, it'll be difficult to look at this as anything other than the early stages of English domination in the Champions League, given Premier League teams have won two of the past three already.

Saturday sees Liverpool and Real Madrid go head-to-head in the final of the Champions League.

After the trophy has been lifted, the medals handed out and the confetti all cleaned up, there will be talk of more individual matters.

Discussions have already begun about which player will take home the coveted Ballon d'Or trophy this year, with the goalposts slightly moved for 2022.

As the World Cup takes place in November and December, it has been decided that this year's award will be handed out in October, with the tournament in Qatar being included in consideration for the 2023 gong.

It will also take into account the entirety of the 2021-22 season, rather than just the calendar year period.

Therefore, it is probably safe to say that any players who play a key role in winning the Champions League will give themselves a huge advantage when it comes to voting later this year, and there are three in particular who have already been popping up in conversation.

Here, Stats Perform takes a look at Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Karim Benzema, breaking down the numbers and trying to predict which one might be donning a tuxedo with a beaming smile at October's ceremony.

Mohamed Salah

At the halfway point of the season, you would have been forgiven for suspending betting on at least the Premier League's player of the year, and arguably the Ballon d'Or as well.

Salah was unstoppable as Liverpool looked to push Manchester City in the title race, as well as steer their way through a tricky Champions League group.

The Egypt international scored a hat-trick as Liverpool demolished Manchester United 5-0, becoming the first away player to score a hat-trick at Old Trafford for over 18 years, since Ronaldo did so for Real Madrid back in April 2003 in the Champions League.

At that point, Salah had bagged 15 goals in 12 games for Liverpool for the season, and had only failed to score in one.

He had 23 goals in all competitions to his name by the time he left to compete in the Africa Cup of Nations in early January, where he helped Egypt reach the final in Cameroon.

It was heartbreak for Salah and The Pharaohs though, losing on penalties to Senegal, before experiencing exactly the same outcome against the same opposition in their World Cup qualifying play-off almost two months later.

Salah returned to score crucial goals against Inter in the Champions League last 16 and Norwich City in the Premier League, but after that went 11 games in all competitions without scoring a goal in open play, before bagging another two against United in a 4-0 win at Anfield.

There were a further seven games without a goal at all after that, though when he came off the bench to score against Wolves on the final day of the season, if it had not been for City's comeback against Aston Villa, Salah would have scored the goal to win his team the Premier League title.

Salah ended the season with 31 goals in all competitions, as well as 15 assists. He lifted the EFL Cup and FA Cup before missing out on Premier League glory.

If he can get the "revenge" he is openly seeking against Madrid for their 2018 Champions League final victory against the Reds and make it a trophy treble, he could well be top of the list in the Ballon d'Or voting.

Sadio Mane

Like Salah, Mane had an impressive start to the season as he scored in nine of his team's first 16 games in all competitions, though had a drier period just before the Africa Cup of Nations, scoring just once in 10 outings.

Where Mane arguably has the edge over his rivals is his showing in Cameroon. Though he only scored three goals during the tournament, he played a big part in key moments.

He netted a pressure stoppage-time penalty in the opening game against Zimbabwe that turned out to be their only goal in the group stage, therefore crucial in them progressing. Mane then scored the opener against Cape Verde in the last 16, and a late clincher against Burkina Faso in the semi-finals.

Mane then took the weight of a nation on his shoulders as he slammed home the winning penalty in the shoot-out against Egypt in the final.

By the time he returned to club action with Salah, Luis Diaz had arrived at Anfield and already taken up residence in Mane's usual position on the left of the front three.

It wasn't a problem, though, as Mane simply reinvented himself as a central striker, scoring a vital winner against West Ham before repeating the trick of scoring a pressure penalty against Egypt to send Senegal to this year's World Cup.

Mane really started to motor as Liverpool looked to win an unprecedented quadruple, scoring nine goals in his last 13 games, including in both the league draw and FA Cup semi-final win against Man City, and then in both legs of the Champions League semi-final against Villarreal.

His numbers still might not quite match up to Salah or Benzema, with 23 goals and two assists in 50 appearances in all competitions at club level, but he did only score two fewer non-penalty goals than Salah (25).

His ability to turn important games and a potential medal collection of EFL Cup, FA Cup, Africa Cup of Nations and Champions League all since January should put him in a strong position.

Karim Benzema

Calling Benzema the man for the big occasion still doesn't feel like it quite does him justice. The 34-year-old is in the form of his life, showing that age really is just a number.

Benzema has made headlines throughout the season, mostly for his uncanny ability to come up with important goals in the Champions League, and he is without doubt the main reason Madrid made it past the last 16, let alone all the way to the final.

Five goals in the group stages from Benzema helped Los Blancos to a last 16 meeting with Paris Saint-Germain, with Kylian Mbappe and company taking a 1-0 lead into the second leg at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Mbappe was dominating again that night, making it 2-0 on aggregate and getting through time and again, until Benzema took over.

His 17-minute hat-trick turned the tie on its head, and sent Carlo Ancelotti's team through to face Chelsea, who Benzema also scored a treble against at Stamford Bridge.

Though Madrid struggled in the second leg at home, Benzema's extra-time strike sent them into the semis, where Man City awaited.

Two more goals from Benzema in the 4-3 defeat at the Etihad Stadium gave them a fighting chance, and though it was Rodrygo who caused all the drama in the closing stages of normal time of the second leg, it was Benzema from the penalty spot who ultimately took his team to the final.

As this year's Ballon d'Or takes into account the whole season, you would have to assume that includes the 2020-21 Nations League, which Benzema and France won in October, with his goals in the semi-final win against Belgium and the final success against Spain seeing Les Bleus lift the trophy.

Benzema was also unstoppable in LaLiga, with his 27 goals being nine more than anyone else managed in the Spanish top flight, and he scored an incredible 44 goals in 45 games in all competitions.

He has also been almost as creative as Salah and more so than Mane, with 83 chances created and 20 big chances created (a chance from which the attacker would be expected to score), while Salah created 85 chances and 21 big chances, and Mane 63 chances and 14 big chances.

So, there are the three cases. For me, if the Spanish giants win, I think you can close the betting on Benzema.

However, should Liverpool lift the trophy, it could lead to an interesting few months as people debate whether Salah's slightly superior numbers or Mane's international credentials mean more.

Whatever happens, you can be sure that whichever horse you back, you will end up having an argument with someone somewhere who thinks Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo should win the crown again.

Toni Kroos believes Karim Benzema has filled the Cristiano Ronaldo void at Real Madrid "to perfection" after enjoying a stunning 2021-22 season that has him in Ballon d'Or contention.

Heading into Saturday's Champions League final, Benzema has scored 44 goals from 45 matches across all competitions this term, which is 12 more than his previous best for a single campaign.

Similarly, his record of 0.98 goals per game is also comfortably the best he has managed over the course of one season.

Add to that a haul of 15 assists, Benzema's 59 goal involvements is second only to Kylian Mbappe (60 – 39 goals, 21 assists), highlighting just how much of a double threat Los Blancos' talisman has been.

Among his goals have been some crucial strikes as well. He netted consecutive hat-tricks against Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea in the Champions League, before also scoring three times over the course of the semi-final defeat of Manchester City.

He has not always been Madrid's main man in attack, with Benzema speaking openly in the past about having to sacrifice his own output for Ronaldo during their time together at the Santiago Bernabeu – he scored just five league goals in the 2017-18 season, for example.

But Kroos admires how the Frenchman has stepped up.

"It wasn't easy to become an even better player," Kroos told ZDF. "I've seen him for eight seasons in all kinds of different roles. Not in other positions, but in terms of the jobs he did on the pitch.

"There were times when he had to pull the bandwagon with his goals and others in which he used to look more to his right and left.

"Cristiano scored 50 goals per season for us and Gareth [Bale] was also on the left in his best years. Those two pillars fell from us.

"Others came like Vinicius [Junior] or Rodrygo, who are evolving very well, but we weren't able to cover Cristiano's 50 goals with just one player until Karim took on that role to perfection."

Saturday's game will be the third European Cup/Champions League final to be contested between Madrid and Liverpool, making it the most common match-up in UEFA's club showpiece.

Although Madrid won LaLiga with four matches to spare, there is a consensus they have exceeded expectations in the Champions League, particularly given they have had great escapes in all three knockout rounds.

Despite that, Kroos does not necessarily consider Liverpool favourites, even if he does accept they have been Europe's best this season.

"Honestly, I think this Liverpool are a better team than in 2018," he added, looking back to Madrid's 3-1 final victory in Kyiv.

"They managed to retain their best players and they signed a few more. Thiago [Alcantara] sets the standards in midfield, they are still very strong at the back and I think that, in terms of record, they were the best team in Europe this season.

"But it's still just one game and you also have to take into account that we eliminated them last season in the quarter-finals. It's 50-50."

He continued: "In a Champions League final you give everything, especially considering that we already had to give everything on more than one occasion to reach the final.

"Now we're there and we want to win the cup, yes, all being aware of the great rival we face."

You could be forgiven for feeling a sense of deja vu when Liverpool take on Real Madrid in the Champions League final at the Stade de France on Saturday.

The two European giants faced off in 2018 in Kyiv, with Los Blancos running out 3-1 winners thanks to, among other things, a sensational Gareth Bale overhead kick.

Four years later Liverpool and Madrid ready to battle it out to be crowned kings of the continent, with 19 European Cups/Champions Leagues already between them.

Just how much have the two teams changed since then, though? Stats Perform has taken a look at both to see if there are any similarities and marked differences to expect in Paris.

From nearly men to trophy collectors

One of the many reasons defeat in Kyiv hurt for Liverpool was it would have not just been another Champions League success, but the first trophy won since Jurgen Klopp had taken over.

The German coach had been at Anfield since October 2015, and while there had been clear progress, it had not yet manifested in the form of silverware.

The idea that the loss was merely a bump in the road on the start of a journey has since been proven correct, as Liverpool have since hoovered up a Champions League, Premier League, UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup, EFL Cup and FA Cup.

At the time, though, it may not have felt that inevitable given the Merseyside club went into the final having finished fourth in the league, 25 points behind champions Man City, having also been knocked out of the EFL Cup in the third round and the FA Cup in the fourth round.

As well as making the final, the 2017-18 season was memorable for the Reds acquiring one Mohamed Salah, who went on to score 44 goals in all competitions.

They lost Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona in the January transfer window, but signed Virgil van Dijk from Southampton to help out a troubled defence.

The team that started against Madrid included at least six players you would think will start in Paris in Trent Alexander-Arnold, Van Dijk, Andrew Robertson, Jordan Henderson, Salah and Sadio Mane, while James Milner and Roberto Firmino will at least be on the bench.

It is perhaps the additions made that will make the difference this time, most notably in goal.

Loris Karius suffered a concussion after an elbow to the head from Sergio Ramos that night, which could explain his bizarre performance after that where he threw the ball straight onto Karim Benzema's foot for Madrid's opener, before dropping the ball into the goal from a Bale shot for their third.

Brazil international Alisson is a significant upgrade on Karius.

Instead of the... shall we say... enigmatic Dejan Lovren, Van Dijk will be partnered by either Joel Matip or Ibrahima Konate, both of whom have performed well with the big Dutchman this season.

Should they be fit, Thiago Alcantara and Fabinho will play with Henderson in midfield instead of Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum, while Luis Diaz will almost certainly play alongside Mane and Salah in place of Firmino.

Klopp only made two changes off the bench that night, with Adam Lallana replacing the injured Salah in the first half, while Emre Can also arrived in the second half with little impact.

He will likely have players such as Firmino, Milner, Diogo Jota, Naby Keita and, for one last time, Divock Origi to make the difference if needed in the French capital.

But overall, how much have they changed as a team since that season?

In all competitions in 2017-18, Liverpool averaged 2.39 goals for and 1.11 goals against per game, while making 584.18 passes per game.

They created 2.26 big chances per game, attempted 62.19 long passes per game and won possession in the final third on average 4.94 times per game.

Compare that to this season, they have averaged slightly fewer goals for with 2.37 per game, though have conceded just 0.76 per game, and made 624.55 passes per game, suggesting they control matches more than they used to.

They have created 2.43 big chances per game, and make fewer long passes with 57.13 per game, so are also maybe not quite as direct.

One of the more interesting stats is that they have been winning possession in the final third on average 7.32 times per game this season, significantly more than they did four years ago, so Madrid will be wary of that.

Speaking to Stats Perform, former Liverpool player and assistant manager Phil Thompson - who was captain of the Reds when they beat Madrid in Paris to lift the European Cup in 1981 - said he feels their added experience will help them this time.

"They're better equipped all round," he said. "We're better defensively. The back four, the goalkeeper, I do think all round we're more experienced now in the way we play with Sadio, Mo Salah, and Luis Diaz has brought a different element to our game."

Madrid back as Champions League experts

Back in 2018, Zinedine Zidane guided Los Blancos to their 13th European Cup/Champions League, but otherwise it was a pretty ordinary campaign.

They finished third in LaLiga, 17 points behind the champions Barcelona. They were also knocked out of the Copa del Rey at the quarter-final stage by lowly Leganes.

They just had a knack in the Champions League, though, and remarkably won their fourth in five years.

Similarly to Liverpool, you would imagine at least five of their starting XI in Kyiv will also start in Paris, with Dani Carvajal, Casemiro, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Benzema key men in Carlo Ancelotti's side.

Thibaut Courtois has replaced Keylor Navas in goal, while Eder Militao, David Alaba and Ferland Mendy will probably be the ones to take the places of Raphael Varane, Sergio Ramos and Marcelo.

It is up top where things have mainly changed though, and not just in personnel.

Isco has become a squad player, who will leave at the end of the season, while Cristiano Ronaldo has long since departed, paving the way for Vinicius Jr and Rodrygo to come in, while Benzema has drastically increased his output.

The France striker scored 12 goals in all competitions in 47 games in the 2017-18 season, but has bagged 44 in 45 this campaign.

As for the team overall, in 2017-18 they averaged just 2.14 goals for per game, and 0.91 against, creating 2.11 big chances per game.

Somewhat bizarrely, their goal averages both for and against are the same as Liverpool's were four years ago (2.39 goals for, 1.11 against per game), though they have increased their average of big chances created to 2.71 per game.

However, they have won LaLiga this season, in addition to the Supercopa de Espana, and somehow found their way past Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City to reach the final.

Looking at those numbers and what has been achieved since, it is fair to say that both teams have improved since their Kyiv meeting.

Klopp's men have gone from a relative also-ran in English football to one of the strongest teams in the world, and had it not been for City's incredible comeback against Aston Villa on Sunday, would be playing to complete a phenomenal and unprecedented quadruple on Saturday.

Madrid have taken back their place as the best in Spain, and whether it was through luck or determination, have toppled three of the best teams in the competition to make it here.

You would assume the match in Paris will be a closer affair than 2018, and as finals so often are, is likely to be decided by the fine margins.

With the strength of both teams, though, do not be surprised if this isn't the last time we are sat here preparing to do battle in Europe's showpiece club game in May.

John Aldridge has compared Real Madrid talisman Karim Benzema to a "bottle of Rioja" who has got better with age ahead of the Champions League final against Liverpool.

France striker Benzema has scored a staggering 44 goals in 45 appearances for Los Blancos this season.

The Madrid captain is the leading scorer in the 2021-22 Champions League, finding the back of the net 15 times in 11 matches – including back-to-back hat-tricks against Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea.

Benzema's penalty settled a pulsating semi-final second leg against Manchester City and the 34-year-old also helped himself to a brace in the first leg.

Former Liverpool striker Aldridge spoke of his admiration for the prolific Benzema ahead of Saturday's Champions League showdown at Stade de France.

He told Stats Perform: "I always thought that Benzema was a good player. But what he's done the last couple of years, and they've had the big players leave, he's become like a bottle of wine.

"He's matured very well. He's got better with age, which I did, because I was a late developer. I found the older I got, the more experience I got, the better I was.

"I played until I was nearly 40. He has a great football brain and all I can say is, he’s like a nice bottle of Rioja, red, that is. He's matured very, very well. And it's very expensive."

Aldridge stressed that the Reds must not allow 36-year-old midfield maestro Luka Modric to dictate the final in Paris.

"It's down the middle, we can hurt them in certain places," he said. "Vinicius [Junior] and Benzema, for me are our main threat.

"They have great players all over the pitch. In midfield, Modric, what a player, what a player he is, whatever age he is, I watched him against Man City, you let him run the show.

"And I've seen him run the show for Tottenham at Liverpool, one of the best appearances I've ever seen from an away player. Some years ago, we got beat, and he was unbelievable.

"So, you can't give him any room. You've got to watch the space in behind Trent [Alexander-Arnold], obviously where they'll capitalise with the pace of Vinicius.

"And Benzema, you can't give him any room in the box, they're the main threats. When you've got [Sadio] Mane, [Diogo] Jota, [Luis] Diaz and [Mohamed] Salah, they've got a little bit to think about as well."

Aldridge also hailed Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti, who won the LaLiga title for the first time this season after leaving Everton for a second spell in the Spanish capital.

He said: "Apart from Everton? It's mad with Ancelotti, he went to Everton and walked away, and he got another crack at Madrid which to be quite honest, how that has happened is like, it's crazy isn't it?

"And he's been brilliant. You have to say he's very intelligent, he's a class act, he's been in these occasions quite a few times as we know. He has set the stall out, he's right up there with the best coaches and managers in the world. Absolutely."

Karim Benzema insists he does not feel "betrayed" by Kylian Mbappe's decision to stay with Paris Saint-Germain instead of joining him at Real Madrid.

After well over a year of intense speculation, Mbappe finally confirmed on Saturday that he had signed a new three-year contract at PSG.

It was a decision few saw coming given Madrid's apparent confidence the France international was going to join them on a free transfer at the end of June.

Mbappe's decision infuriated LaLiga chief Javier Tebas, while others associated more closely with Madrid were said to have been stunned.

An Instagram post by Benzema later the same day attracted particular attention, as he uploaded a photo of late rapper Tupac Shakur that was deemed to be veiled reference to betrayal.

According to Madrid-based newspaper Marca, which is generally regarded to have strong ties to Los Blancos, Benzema had been key in trying to persuade international team-mate Mbappe to join the club, hence why he might have felt betrayed.

But Benzema is adamant such stories are nonsense.

Speaking to Movistar Plus on Tuesday, Benzema said: "I'm going to tell you that we're going to play a Champions League final on Saturday. This is not the time to talk about those little things. I'd rather not talk.

"I'm not angry, I'm just telling you that I'm focused on the Champions League final, which is more important than listening to other things."

Asked if he felt "betrayed", Benzema continued: "Why? Everyone has to be focused on their things.

"Mbappe and other players have no reason to call me. Everyone decides their future. I'm calm here, preparing for Saturday's game. Each person does what he wants.

"There is no history of betrayal, or anything… Every month and a half I [post] photos of Tupac, who is my favourite.

"It's not a photo with a message; if I have a message I will see the person. Madrid is the best club in the world, but it was not a message."

Benzema did acknowledge, however, that the news was unexpected.

"I was surprised, like everyone else," he said. "He is a Paris player and we have a game on Saturday."

Both players are expected to be on international duty with France next month when Les Bleus begin their Nations League title defence.

Real Madrid have been likened to a cat with nine lives by UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin after their dramatic run to the Champions League final.

The Spanish LaLiga winners came from 2-0 behind on aggregate with a stunning comeback against Paris Saint-Germain at the last-16 stage, then resisted a Chelsea fightback in the quarter-finals.

They topped those victories, however, with their recovery against Manchester City in the semi-finals, with Ceferin admitting he thought the Spanish giants' hopes were finally dead and buried.

An all-English final in Paris was looming when City led 5-3 on aggregate going into the 90th minute at the Santiago Bernabeu on May 4, only for a Rodrygo double and Benzema's penalty in extra time to sensationally turn the tie around.

The May 28 showpiece will now feature Madrid against Liverpool, both long-time titans of the competition, with Ceferin describing that match-up as "insanely interesting".

"Already in the semi-finals I doubted that Real could eliminate Manchester City," Ceferin said, "especially after the defeat in the first game."

City won 4-3 in Manchester and led 1-0 in Madrid through Riyad Mahrez's goal, before the late flurry from the hosts.

"They obviously have nine lives like cats," Ceferin said, in an interview with Slovenian news website 24ur.com.

The UEFA boss noted the experience in the Madrid ranks, yet he questioned the strength of Carlo Ancelotti's defence, describing it as "weak".

"But they have the miraculous Karim Benzema, for whom I have said many times that in my opinion he is one of the most underrated players in the history of football," Ceferin added.

"Luka Modric, the older he is, the better he is."

 

Benzema has scored a competition-high 15 goals for Madrid in the Champions League this season, in just 11 games. Those goals have come at a rate of one every 67.7 minutes. He is an obvious threat to Liverpool's hopes of winning a third cup competition this season, having already won the FA Cup and EFL Cup.

Ceferin believes both sides have their merits, with Madrid's experience punching against the relative youth of Liverpool.

"I wouldn't dare to predict the winner, as a rule I misjudge. It's impossible to predict," he said. "This will be an insanely interesting final."

Off the field, Ceferin says he has had no recent contact with Madrid senior officials, after the club were key players behind the failed push for a European Super League.

"The time will come when these things will be cleared up, but they will certainly not be on the pitch," Ceferin said.

Karim Benzema moved level with Raul as Real Madrid's second-highest all-time top goalscorer and Vinicius Junior scored a hat-trick as the LaLiga champions relegated Levante with a 6-0 hammering.

Ferland Mendy got Carlo Ancelotti's side, who were crowned champions a fortnight ago, on their way early on, before Benzema joined Madrid icon Raul on 323 goals soon after.

Rodrygo and Vinicius added further goals before the interval, with the latter completing his treble in the second half at the Santiago Bernabeu on Thursday.

While the rout restored Madrid's 12-point advantage over Barcelona at the summit, it condemned Levante drop with two games to play.

Any hopes Levante had of causing an upset were dispelled in the 13th minute when Mendy powered into the penalty area and slotted past Daniel Cardenas.

Federico Valverde then steered a volley against the post, before Benzema doubled his side's advantage with a close-range header from Vinicius' cross after 19 minutes.

Rodrygo slid home Luka Modric's cross to make it three in the 34th minute, while Cardenas twice pushed Valverde drives onto the crossbar as Madrid dominated.

They made it four in the 45th minute, when Vinicius collected Modric's pass and curled past Cardenas from a tight angle.

Cardenas pawed away Modric's whipped effort and Vinicius saw an effort ruled out for offside after the interval. 

The Brazil international was not to be denied in the 68th minute, though, tapping into an empty net after Benzema had rounded Cardenas.

He had his hat-trick seven minutes from full-time courtesy of a cool finish from 10 yards out after breaking through Levante's dispirited backline. 

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